During Paris’s painful transportation strike at year-end, the Opéra Comique soldiered on, canceling relatively few performances when other venues were dark. That plucky attitude has continued through the COVID shutdown. Like other theaters, it remains closed, but the Opéra Comique has made a number of its recent productions available online. Two of these—Charles Gounod’s La Nonne Sanglante and André Messager’s Fortunio—are happy examples of the Comique’s unspoken philosophy: staging musically delightful and historically interesting works largely overlooked by other companies.
Take La Nonne Sanglante (The Bloody Nun), for example. Quickly pulled after its unpromising premiere (nuns plus sex plus murder was a bit much for audiences in 1854), La Nonne was something of a test bed for the ideas Gounod would use to such considerable effect in his 1859 Faust. La Nonne’s solo arias and ensemble pieces are fully within the high-voltage grand opéra tradition, as is its rich and effective orchestral writing. Much of the success of the Opéra Comique’s 2018 revival lies in David Bobée’s imaginative staging, which ignores the tired succubus/incubus elements of Eugène Scribe’s original libretto in favor of a more psychological take: it emphasizes the hero’s divided loyalties between the girl he loves, Agnès, and the one he obsesses over, the Nun.
The plot assembles a number of Scribe’s tried and true dramatic conventions: an antique setting, warring families, elopement, a terrible secret from years past (in this case the seduction and midnight stabbing of a young nun by Comte Ludorf, the father of the hero), pure love, duty, expiation, and reconciliation.
It is the time of the Crusades. A holy man calls on the chiefs of two feuding clans, the Ludorfs and the Moldaws, to join forces against the Unfaithful and to seal this new unity by the marriage of their eldest children. Agnès Moldaw, however, has no intention of marrying the thuggish and battle-scarred Théophile—she is in love with his younger brother, Rudolfo.
Following a noisy confrontation between their families at the Ludorf castle, the two lovers agree to elope at midnight. Agnès is late, however, and on the stroke of twelve Rudolfo meets the spectral Nun who always wanders the halls at that time. Believing her to be Agnès in disguise, he gives a ring to the Nun (who is by now bleeding heavily) and then falls unconscious. As consummation of a ghostly marriage is problematic even in happier circumstances, the Nun settles for the next-best thing—haunting Rudolfo at midnight every night for the next several months before telling him that he can only free himself by avenging her murder.
In the final two acts, Rudolfo returns to Chateau Ludorf to marry Agnès (ugly Théophile having perished in battle) but finds himself in a real pickle: he must to discover whom to kill in order to avenge the Nun, and in the meantime he has to explain the inexplicable to Agnès, that is, why the Nun still haunts him. This quandary requires him to stand Agnès up at the altar, shaming her and infuriating her clansmen. As is generally the case with Scribe’s plots, however, things work out at the end, howsoever implausibly: Comte Ludorf atones for his crime by allowing himself to be murdered in Rudolfo’s stead by a Moldaw gang bent on vengeance for Agnès’s humiliation.
The lyric tenor Michael Spyres did a wonderful job as Rudolfo in the 2018 production, never missing a note and acting exceptionally well. He sounds even better in the streamed version (also available, by the way, on a Naxos DVD). Marion Lebègue as the Nun shows a healthy mix of nether-worldliness and sensuality. Vannina Santoni is in good voice as Agnès, and her acting excellent—the catfight with Rudolfo at the end of the fifth act has real spit and fire. Jodie Devos plays the small but demanding breeches role of Arthur, Rudolfo’s valet, who finds him in a remote village months after his betrothal to the Nun and persuades him to return to marry Agnès. Ms. Devos handles Gounod’s spectacular music effortlessly. Jérôme Boutillier’s excellent Comte Ludorf is alternately harsh and guilt-ridden.
Laurence Equilbey’s able conducting of her Insula Orchestra shows her understanding and sympathy for this work. But it is her and David Bobée’s transformation of the third act’s entr’acte and ballet into a nightmarish dream sequence that steals the show. Instead of reproducing the tame peasants’ dance described in the libretto, the production has a sleeping Rudolfo mocked and harassed by a shadowy demon, and then circled in half-shadow by the taunting images of Agnès, the Nun, and Comte Ludorf, along with other ghostly presences. It is all accompanied by Gounod’s satanic waltz music, a forerunner of what he would write for Faust. Only a few minutes long, the scene is nevertheless a remarkable and chilling portrayal of the psychological stress Rudolfo suffers from his battle between love and lust—a battle that Gounod himself, who would later leave his family to take up residence with a British singer, was quite familiar with.
Worlds away from medieval Bohemia is Fortunio, André Messager’s light four-act opera that revolves around that familiar chestnut, the old cuckold with more money than time for his wife.
Based on Alfred de Musset’s play Le Chandelier, Fortunio played at the Opéra Comique last December. The story involves the frisky young wife of Mâitre André, a successful old lawyer, who has a one-night stand under her husband’s nose with a dashing infantry captain. They decide their further assignations will be safer if they find a chandelier or “candlestick”—we would call him a “third wheel”—who can serve as a decoy and divert the old man’s attention. (The term comes from the expression “to hold the candlestick,” a reference to the delightful old pre-electricity days in France when one summoned the servant into the conjugal bedroom to help things along by—eyes suitably averted—illuminating the proceedings). Things go bad from the start for poor old Mâitre André, but they end up far worse for the Captain, who finds himself displaced in Jacqueline’s affections by the candlestick himself, Fortunio.
It is a fun opera—there are probably not too many others, for good reason, that start with an aria describing the head of a law firm followed immediately by a toast to his luscious wife. The characters assemble quickly: Fortunio (Cyrille Dubois), the country boy, come to town to clerk; the horndog Captain (Jean-Sébastien Bou), leching in the local watering hole; and Mâitre André (Franck Leguérinel) and his delectable Jacqueline (Anne-Catherine Gillet) emerging from church, he pontificating and she repeating “yes dear” in reply.
It’s also an opera that abandons the “hearty male hero” trope, with Fortunio singing sensitively about his upbringing as a nature-loving country boy (“La Vieille maison grise”). Gillet’s excellent acting as Jacqueline persuades us to suspend our astonishment that she could so quickly fall for Fortunio after her vigorous interlude with the captain.
There are sly touches in the libretto as well. In the fourth act, after Jacqueline declares her affections for Fortunio in a room romantically lit by a single candle, Fortunio slips out the window just before Mâitre André appears at her door with the mightily annoyed Captain. She points to the light and tells her now-former lover to “hold the candlestick”—and leave.
Messager’s music is delightful—he was trained by Saint-Saëns, Gabriel Faure, and Charles-Marie Widor, his melodies are delicious, and his accompaniments endlessly varied and interesting.
Fortunio can be streamed on the Opéra Comique replay website until November 2020.